HARRISBURG - Hundreds of people from across Pennsylvania took their anger over the state's new voter identification law to the Capitol steps Tuesday, saying the law will make it harder for minorities, the poor, and the elderly to vote.
Several dozen speakers addressed a rally organized by the Pennsylvania chapter of the NAACP, with nearly all asking the same question: If the state could offer no evidence of the kind of voter fraud the ID law targets, why was that law needed?
"If even one person is turned away from the ballot box in the Keystone State because he or she does not have the correct ID, it will be especially tragic, given that the bill sponsors could not come up with a single instance of voter fraud in the history of the state in which the photo ID would have made one iota of a difference," Hilary O. Shelton, the NAACP'S national senior vice president for advocacy, told the rally.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) put it this way: "Did George Washington have a voter ID card? Did John Adams? Hell, no."
Many speakers pressed arguments made by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and others in a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the law. Hearings in that case begin Wednesday.
The ACLU contends that the law will unfairly burden the poor and the elderly, arguing that they are less likely to have photo identification and may have greater difficulty tracking down the documents needed to get ID from the state.
Kathy Jellison, president of the Service Employees International Union, asked the crowd, "Is it just that those hurt most are the poor, minorities, and the majority of those folks live in the birthplace of freedom, Philadelphia?"
State data says more than 100,000 registered voters in the city have neither valid driver's licenses nor the nondriver photo ID that can be obtained from the state Department of Transportation.
State Rep. Ron Waters (D., Phila.) said he hoped courts would block the law, but he suggested a fallback for Nov. 6: Get valid ID and punish the Republicans who enacted the law in March. "We need to come out in record numbers and vote those bums out of office," he said.
As the rally grew more rambunctious, officials from the Department of State alerted reporters to a news conference Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele was holding afterward to answer issues raised at the rally.
Protesters gathered outside the room to hear Aichele's remarks but were kept out by Capitol Police. Her voice could barely be heard over their chants of "Let us in, let us in."
Inside, Aichele, who oversees elections, listed steps her department had taken to help voters who lack a driver's license or other acceptable photo ID. The latest step, announced Friday, was the debut of a new ID card for voters having trouble finding their birth certificates.
She voiced confidence that such initiatives and an intensive education drive would ensure that all eligible voters can get valid IDs.
Later, Williams complained that the Capitol room where Aichele spoke should have been open to the public. "We will be taking that to court," the senator vowed, "because rights have been violated today."